When it comes to the Arctic, no writer has depicted this slice of Canadiana better than Farley Mowat. It’s certainly no coincidence then that actor-turned-director Charles Martin Smith, who starred in the 1983 film adaptation of Mowat’s classic, Never Cry Wolf, would choose the celebrated author’s storytelling as a basis for his latest movie.
Loyal to the short story Walk Well, My Brother, “The Snow Walker” is set in the early ‘50s in the far North. Swaggering, womanizing WW II vet Charlie Halliday (Canadian Barry Pepper) is given the okay by his boss to deviate from his commercial flight path after a hard day’s work transporting cargo. Halliday lands on the Arctic Ocean gulf, and comes across a band of Inuit fishing in the area that ask him in sign language to take one of their sick women to Yellowknife. Halliday agrees only after a precious set of walrus tusks makes it worth his while. While transporting the young, striking Kanaalaq (newcomer Annabella Piugattuk), the plane crashes in the Arctic tundra. Left to his own devices, Halliday sets off for Baker Lake—some 200 miles away—but the elements get the better of him. Days later he comes to, and much to his astonishment, Kanaalaq is tending to his weakened body.
Halliday and Kanaalaq must work cooperatively to endure in this unforgiving setting until help arrives. This brazen sexist and unapologetic racist must rely on the survival skills of a sickly, diminutive native woman. What unfolds is expected and inevitable. Language fails and the two cultures collide initially but give way to understanding. With the help of Kanaalaq, Halliday chases away his biases in an attempt to live off the land and an eventual return to the comforts of modern life. Through adversity, he learns to love her platonically.
On larger scale, “The Snow Walker” rehashes the oldest of Canadian tales: white man’s arrival in the New World and his ultimate survival in the wilderness resting on the hands of natives. The character driven plot could not have worked so well without extremely plausible acting. We come to care about the utterly detestable Halliday, and first timer Annabella Piugattuk projects the aboriginal experience of her people with genuine flair and depth.
Smith directs the emerging relationship simply and subtly, and captures the harsh beauty of the backdrop quite ably. Much like Mowat’s work, “The Snow Walker” is compelling, affecting and inspiring.
Review by Jerry Stamatelos